A great way to start understanding the issues raised here is to first read Killing Ourselves With Kindness by Teacher Tom
Increasingly we hear we can’t go back to “normal” and that we need a radical change. We are also seeing educational leaders tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to bring students back to school with social distancing and older teachers who are high risk or younger teachers who are afraid to bring the virus home.
At the same time, we learn that many employers and workers are finding that their productivity at home is up and the lower expenses of office space and commuting make this a win-win. The other reality is that many mothers are experiencing a huge added burden of home-schooling and childcare while also trying to maintain their career or having to abandon it altogether.
While all this is going on, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are in for a multi-year deep economic downturn. Schools have to gear up for added security while facing a significant loss of tax revenue. Businesses, too, will feel the pinch and want to lower wages to keep afloat, meaning less household income for families. The government cannot make-up for all of this shortfall.
In a recent conversation with Tom Hodson, aka Teacher Tom, we talked extensively about the power of cooperatives. In my last post, I mentioned Teacher Tom’s Woodland as well as Takoma Park schools, which are both parent co-ops. Along with Anji Play in China, these schools represent what I believe are the ideal early learning environments. What they share is the creation of programs and spaces that are dynamically created in response to a deep understanding of the truth of play-based learning.
Thinking more about our conversation, I realized that Tom already sees the solution to educating children going forward. His passion for cooperatives is not misplaced as they have historically been one of the keys to economic recoveries for generations. Now is the time to make that the centerpiece of learning going forward. Here’s why.
Co-ops keep tuition costs affordable, which is essential. A secondary benefit, but not less important, is they are a way for parents to learn more about child development, how kids learn through play, and to manage without negative discipline. Ok, you say, co-ops are great, but they are few and far between. What makes them a model that will scale?
Here’s how this can work. The CDC has already suggested that one way to begin to adapt long-term to COVID is for families to create small cohorts who both share the risks and defend each other, and in this way, deal with the crippling effects of isolation. These neighborhood groups will increasingly help with children’s learning as well. We already see a big movement in this direction with families teaming up to pay teachers to educate their children.
Most schools will be forced to go to full-time distant learning as the safety measures they are putting in place will fail to adequately protect students or bring sufficient teachers back. This means a huge part of public education will be virtual while at the same time, many teachers will not be in classrooms. The picture that will emerge is a largely decentralized education system when most learning is at home, and school buildings sit largely empty. It would not be at all surprising to see many campuses converted to housing in the coming years.
What will be needed?
There are some significant gaps in this scenario that are predictable. As any teacher will tell you, kids are prodigious consumers of materials, and teachers spend an inordinate amount of time, often unpaid and out of pocket, to supply this appetite. Unlike the ageist pattern of current schools, we will also see mixed-age groups that exacerbate this issue. Finally, kids need to be outdoors, and most residential homes are ill-equipped to deal with active play and exploratory learning in the backyard.
This is where co-op preschools and other parent participation programs can help as they have a wealth of experience dealing with these issues with limited resources. As I mentioned to Tom, school-based adventure play has a well-established list of play materials. This is a good start. But it is also true that these small cohorts will have a difficult time having the capacity to gather these materials efficiently. Especially given that, unlike a school, their need is relatively short-term and constantly changing as their children grow.
The solution to this requirement is to turn again to the co-op model. There are already co-op scrap stores that bring together great materials that you can purchase by the pound. There are all sorts of buying cooperatives that are hugely successful and long-lasting like REI and ACE hardware.
Forming a Play-Based Learning Cooperative is an effective way to address these predictable needs. It is also the case that a successful cooperative generally is also an advocate for its members. This is generally in the form of marketing, but it is also common for a co-op to be both a powerful advocate and lobbyist.
By coming together, this will work!